Parenting lesson #3: You are embarking on a new phase in life that many see as an invitation for unsolicited advice and judgment.

They certainly look like a fun way to pass the time …

As with everything else, not everyone will agree with you when it comes to parenting.  And it seems like more so than in any other occupation, family and strangers alike feel the need to voice their opinions about the job you’re doing.  It’s possible there’s nothing else we do in public that’s as judgment-inducing as how we deal with our children.  When you have a newborn and you’re already nervous about being out, inevitably some little old lady will tell you that your baby – who is in a fleece sleeper and covered in blankets – is cold.  When Eliza was four-weeks-old and I was dealing with feeding issues, my mother-in-law came to visit.  I had just fed Eliza and she was crying.  My MIL said, “Do you think she’s hungry?  Why don’t you just give her some formula?”

I wish I could say that these unsolicited remarks end at some point, but they do not.  It happened to me Wednesday while traveling alone with the kids, and I know it will happen hundreds more times.  After spending 1 1/2 hours driving to the airport, and the next 1 1/2 hours going through security and traipsing the kids across the terminal for 3 gate changes, I was already spent.  Honestly I was just thankful I hadn’t lost my kids in an elevator or bathroom.  But the wait wasn’t over.  There were storms that were keeping our plane circling above, and in the end, our flight was delayed an hour-and-a-half.  When your kids are at the past-exhausted, giggly, we’re going to hit each other because it’s funny mode, you can only do so much.  I decided that getting them some exercise on the moving walkways was a good way to expend energy and pass the time.

Once there, I felt a little like perhaps this wasn’t the best decision.  I didn’t want to be in the way of people hurrying to make their connections.  I did a decent job keeping the kids to the right so people could pass on the left.  Regardless, there was one older couple traveling with a single female companion, and they all huffed and puffed as they walked around us and threw me disapproving glances.  Then the single companion said to my kids after passing them, “Children, hold on to the railing!”

In some ways, it’s entirely annoying that others – especially strangers – do this.  I am not perfect and I might not always make the best decisions, but I would appreciate it if people assumed I have thought through what I’m doing.  Were my children in danger of falling?  I don’t think so.  Were they in the way of others?  Perhaps a little.  Did their presence on the moving walkway hinder anyone?  Maybe by a few seconds.  But honestly, if you’re a stranger and you want to help a parent, sending dirty looks at her is not helpful.  If this woman had looked at me and said, “Do you need some help?  Would you like me to hold their hands and help you get through the walkway?”, I would have known she was concerned for their well-being, not trying to chastise me for what she thought was carelessness.  There’s a part of me that wishes I would have reacted how Greg would have reacted, which would have been by saying, “Yes, and kids, remember not to speak unless spoken to.”

I really hope that regardless what stage I’m in with my kids, I give others the benefit of the doubt, and if I really want to be helpful, that I’ll offer actual help, not judgment.  When I see a woman holding her baby in one arm and feeding her toddler some candy with her other while loading groceries into her car, I’m going to offer to strap her baby into his car seat or load her groceries, not shake my head at her for giving a toddler candy.  Because I’ve been there, and I don’t want to forget what it’s like to live that tough moment.

This parenting journey is hard, with lots of twists and turns.  Sometimes what we need least are these opinionated naysayers.  But if we can laugh it off, and perhaps take any bit of truth from these incidents for the next test, it’s all part of the experience – the wonderful, challenging, beautiful experience.

Parenting lesson #18: You will use the same phrases your parents said to you that you swore you would never use

Every parent will experience this moment.  No matter how much you swore to yourself up-and-down as a child that you would never torture your own children with that phrase, you will hear it out of your mouth.  And then (GASP!), out of your child’s mouth.

We were driving away from church yesterday when Eliza asked if we were going to the pool.  And I said something like, “We can probably do that, but after naps.”  And she said, “We can do it the easy way or the hard way.”  Gulp.  There it was.  I heard this Larry-ism (my dad) echoing in the recesses of my brain and realized that there was no way she came up with that on her own.  Especially because when she said it, it didn’t make any sense.

“We can do this the easy way or the hard way.”  It hung in the car and Greg and I looked at each other.  I envisioned all those mornings before school growing up.  I thought I had forgotten these terrible memories, but I had not.  My dad has a growlish sound to his voice when he’s angry.  You knew you had tested him to his limits when he got to this point.  And he got angry just about every morning when it came time to brush my teeth.  (As an orthodontist’s daughter, I was destined to rebel against dental care.)  I have obviously blocked out what I could have possibly done to deserve that phrase.  But I can imagine that the exchange every day included at least these three things:

“Why do I have to brush my teeth?”

“I don’t want to.”

And the best one, “You can’t make me!”

I understand now so clearly how frustrating I was to my dad.  I always knew that we had reached the end of the battle when he would bark, “Christine, we can do this the easy way or the hard way.” And he would sprawl me horizontally on his lap and pin me down as I screamed, kicked and twisted my head.  The torture of it all!  How dare he brush my teeth!

Looking back, I think I so hated this phrase because it signified defeat.  I do not like to give in.  And here I am.  Thirty years later, I have done this to my two children.  I have pinned their puny arms down with one of mine while saying this weighty phrase and forcing a toothbrush into their little traps.  At least I believe I say it rationally and calmly, without the growl.  These days, the kids are both great at allowing us to brush their teeth.  They generally don’t fight it at all.  As with anything involving children, though, it is an unpredictable pattern and I have no idea if we will regress back to these necessary teeth-brushing battles.  And so the phrase will live on, despite my desire to retire it.  There are some matters in which children do not have a choice.  I can’t think of a better way of explaining to them that there are some things they must do; the power they have is in how they do them.  There is an easy way and a hard way for a lot of things.

Just as I eventually stopped squirming in my father’s arms as he tried to be a good dad, I will give in to using this phrase, and at least attempt to use it only when needed – and even then, without the growl.

Have you heard your mom or dad speaking through you?

Getting away will cost you: the aftermath of grandma

We're on a boat ... without the kids!

I came home to my normal life from our anniversary getaway and wondered how on earth anybody does this.

Before I begin, I know my mom is going to read this, so first of all, mom, you know how I feel about you and this is not reflective of you doing anything wrong; rather, this is more about the grandma’s right to spoil her grandchildren.

Getting away without the kids was fabulous.  There was peace.  There was quiet.  I even read for fun, instead of all the non-fiction how-to parent stuff.  But after being home from our trip for about 15 minutes, I realized my life is consumed by constant, loud noise: Eliza singing her ABC’s on repeat; Zach screaming at the top of his lungs to get my attention, clenching his fists by his side like he just kicked the winning soccer goal in the European Cup; Eliza tapping on me in mid-conversation, saying, “Mommy, mommy, mommy, mommy – look at me!”; me asking her to give me a few minutes to talk to Omi (grandma); Zach crying because Eliza took away his car while singing her ABCs; Eliza switching to “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” because I asked her to sing something different (funny – different words, but same, darned tune).

Unless they are sleeping, there is always noise.  And if there isn’t any noise while they’re awake, then there is trouble.  You can’t win.

The contrast is stark between the quiet of an adult-filled lake house and the ear-damaging loudness of my kid-filled house.  It was amazing to realize just how much ambiance I hear on a daily basis.  But there was something else.  I also realized the kids were tired and more used to getting what they wanted when they wanted it.  There were more whining demands and tantrums.  It has been tough adjusting.

I’ve tried to embark on a re-training schedule.  Even today, Eliza whined to me that she wanted to go downstairs to play with her kitchen, so I turned off the TV and starting to go with her, and then she threw a fit about wanting to finish what was on TV.  In that moment, I felt like a puppet, and instead of caving into her antics, I picked her up, took her to bed, and told her it was nap time.  Her tantrum got worse, turning into one of those times she could barely get her words out amid her tears and gasps for air.  I kept my cool and didn’t budge, and she realized her efforts were futile.  I walked away.  She fell asleep.  Which is exactly what she needed.

I read one mom’s perspective today that when her kids were little, she could never get enough sleep.  And when they were toddlers, she never had enough patience.  It’s so true.  Although I still don’t get enough sleep, patience is really what rearing toddlers and pre-schoolers requires.  I am a broken record of behavior correction and modeling.  Sometimes I am dumbfounded by how many times both Zach and Eliza will test whether I mean what I say.  And since grandma came, I’ve had a lot more testing.

But our trip was still worth it.  We’re getting back to normal, little by little (which is to say a place that still requires vast vats of patience).  It is really hard, but it is also really awesome.  And at least today, I know I can do this.

Mess up fess up

A mess takes only moments to make

I’m a bad mom.  As I usually have to make dinner while I have the kids around, I generally put on a TV show to keep them occupied.  (No, this isn’t the bad mom part.)  Last night they were giggling a lot, and I was distracted because I was making a new recipe, so I didn’t check on them.  That was a big mistake.  Exhibit A shows the damage they did, in a few minutes of I’m sure what they thought was good, clean fun.  That pile, before dinner, was folded laundry.

I lost it.  If you have an infant, you lose it when your baby wakes you for the third time in three hours, screaming, and you have no idea why.  And you shout in your head, “Shut the BLEEP up,” while wishing you could put her outside to sleep, just for a few hours so you could think straight again.  Of course, instead, you probably pick up your baby in your stupor and rock her as your anger needle drops, because rationalization overcomes your frustration.  (She is, after all, a defenseless baby.)

But when your kids are a little older, and they have brains that work, and you’ve told them before not to play with folded laundry, the anger that wells up from direct disobedience in a fleeting moment can overwhelm you.  I would go so far as to say I can have an out-of-body experience.  This isn’t a defenseless child; this is someone who made a conscious decision to combat you, just because it was fun, or just to see what you would do in return.  It is an ex-haus-ting, often daily, battle.

But (always afterwards) I realize that’s not a good reason to lose it.  I yelled about how I’d asked her not to do that before, and how that meant I would have to re-fold it, and how I don’t have time to do that, and it’s inconsiderate and mean to do such a thing to your poor mother.  And what that means is that all last night and all this morning, Eliza kept saying, “Mommy, you’re not happy with me.  You yelled at me.  I’m sorry” in a way that indicates the hurt I put on her was far worse than the frustration of re-folding laundry.  I forgot about re-folding the laundry by this morning.  Eliza, however, couldn’t forget hurting me in such a way that caused me to react like that.

I hope that next time I can look at the laundry pile and laugh, because my kids had a blast making the mess.  After all, it’s laundry.  I should be thankful we have clothes to wear, and a working washer and dryer to clean them, not to mention my floor was mopped earlier in the day, so the clothes were still clean.  Next time, I hope I can bring myself to say, “Oh gosh, that’s going to take some time to clean up.  Can you help me, because it’s okay to make a mess as long as you clean it up,” which would turn the situation into a teaching moment.

I hope next time I can react in such a way that doesn’t make me feel like a bad mom.  I’m not going to beat myself up over it anymore, because one thing my kids are already teaching me is that their grace, like God’s, is new each day.  And that reminds me that I might have bad moments, but I’m a good mom.

How do you know if you want more kids?

Does anyone know a good urologist in our area?  The last time we talked about it, Greg told me he was about 85% sure he doesn’t want any more kids.  I am less sure what I want, depending on the time of day.  If it’s afternoon nap time, I might think I could have another some day, maybe when Eliza’s in pre-kindergarten.  If Eliza’s choking Zach’s neck for the 13th time and it’s only 8:30 and I have breakfast all over me even though I haven’t eaten anything yet, I am generally of the mindset that Greg should get on the phone and make an appointment for a vasectomy.

This morning brought unplanned-for chaos, and I was ready to make an appointment myself an hour ago, but now I’m not so sure.  (It’s nap-time.)  My neighbor, Chelsea, is expecting any minute (she would say yesterday, even though she’s 37 weeks), and around 7 this morning her contractions dictated a hospital trip.  She needed someone to take her two daughters, so of course I said “yes.”  I put on a big pot of oatmeal and told myself, “I can do this.”  I had planned on heading to the grocery store because we’re hosting a friend for dinner, and our cleaning ladies were coming, and it’s rainy, but whatever.  I always quote to myself, “The best laid plans of mice and men … ” despite never having read that book.  And I have a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde internal power struggle between the laid-back-take-things-in-stride person I want to be, and the type-A control freak I generally am, wondering this morning if I could keep from playing favorites, and how I was going to keep the house picked up enough for the cleaners to actually clean, and how I could feed four kids at the same time, and why in the heck Greg was still in bed, because there was no way he couldn’t hear the extra voices downstairs.

The five hours were crazy.  Chelsea’s eldest, who’s nearly five-years-old, asked “Why?” at least 15 times.  She asked me why Eliza had four time-outs.  She asked me why we weren’t going to play with Play-Doh.  She asked me why I couldn’t whistle, and when I said her mom and dad were special because they could whistle, she said, “You’re not special?”  And I said, “No, I guess I’m not, at least not in that way.”  To which she responded, “No, Eliza’s mom, you are special to the man who’s Eliza’s dad.”

Chelsea’s soon-to-be middle child (because the baby hasn’t graced us with her presence yet!) and Eliza fought over every toy that sparked either one of their interests today.  Eliza pushed her multiple times and kept ripping toys from her grips (hence the aforementioned time-outs).  I got to the point where I just took everything away that any of them fought over.  It didn’t really deter the fighting, but maybe it will some day.

But even after all of the tough moments, and all of my “Because I’m in charge” and “Because I said so” comments (things I vowed never to say as a kid when my own parents said them to me), I sit here in a moment of clarity knowing how special each of these kids is.  I couldn’t imagine a world without any one of them, and so that’s why I really don’t know if I want more.  As crazy as life with three or four (or more if that were God’s plan) would be, I know He wouldn’t give me more than I could handle.  But it’s so hard when you’re in the middle of a challenging scene, because you feel like things are so out of control, and you can’t handle another request to go pee, or for more food, or to get down, or another “She pushed me,” or just plain “Whaaaaa.”

I think if we’re supposed to have more kids, God is going to have to make it abundantly clear.  For now, I pretty much do cartwheels every time I get my period.  But maybe someday I won’t, and I’ll long for another one.  I guess if Greg were to get a vasectomy (a very BIG if) and we got pregnant anyway, I would know for sure it was meant to be.  😉

Toddler chores: it’s not child labor

A lot of my parenting attitude comes from thinking that whether I do it now or later, I have to teach my children, well, almost everything.  So I think I’m a bit ambitious with things I think Eliza should be able to handle and sometimes I end up frustrated, having to remind myself how old she is.  However, I think 18 months is a good time to begin teaching kids a few ways to help out.  In fact, before she was 18 months, Eliza knew how to take her dirty diapers to the diaper pail and toss them in it properly.  When Zach was born, I could keep her busy with throwing out his diapers while I finished changing and redressing him.  Here are other things with which she already helps (and how I use these as teaching moments):

1) Dishes – Eliza unloads and loads our silverware.  Yes, she hands it to me to put it in the drawer, so it doesn’t actually help save me time, but it keeps her occupied while I get other things put away.  This is how I taught her what knives, spoons, and forks are, and how she’s learned what big and small are as well (big spoon, little spoon, for example).  She is now learning how to put away other items that go in lower cabinets, like plastic cutting boards.

2) Laundry – She throws dirty clothes into the hamper.  When I wash the laundry, she helps put clothes into the washer, move them from the washer to the dryer, and put them in a laundry basket for folding.  I’m now starting to include her on sorting whites, lights, darks and delicates, which gives us an opportunity to work on learning colors.

3) Tidying up – I don’t just sigh and pick up all of her toys at the end of the day, complaining about the mess.  She knows how to help and we sing a “clean up” song so it’s fun.  (Okay, maybe sometimes I sigh and do it myself, but at least she’s not averse to helping.)

4) Feeding Zach – Yes, he might be feeding himself with a spoon by the time she gets it down, but Eliza BEGS to help feed him, so she sits on my lap and gives it the old college try.  It doesn’t really help because it takes longer, but it does keep her occupied and he loves it.  Plus, she’s refining her motor skills.

5) Feeding the dog – She can’t do it alone just yet, but she enjoys scooping out the dog food and putting it in Abbey’s bowl.  This is great because it often spills, so she’s learning how to walk gingerly while carrying something that might spill.

6) Spills and messes – She likes to use sponges and paper towels, so whenever she spills something, or when I want to wipe down the dining room table, she helps.

I’m interested in knowing what ways your toddlers and pre-schoolers help you out.  I’m sure there are other things I could be teaching Eliza that I can get out of doing myself sooner rather than later, so thanks for any input!